Scarce Resources

Poetry / Geetha Iyer

:: Scarce Resources ::

Los indí­ge­nas pre­colom­bi­nos ven­er­a­ban a la rana [dora­da] y tal­laron tal­is­man­es de arcil­la y oro (hua­cas) seme­jantes a éstas. Esta prác­ti­ca con­du­jo al mito mod­er­no de que las ranas doradas se trans­for­man en hua­cas de oro al morir, y cualquier per­sona que ve o posee una rana dora­da viva ten­drá bue­na fortuna.

          I have been thinking about amphibians 
the way others think about fortunes. The cost of storing
          sperm in a vat of nitrogen. The cost of lighting, 
casing, ventilation. Labor—the woman who raises a swarm 

          of fruit flies, dusts them in nutritional supplements. 
The value of a toad in a tank that refuses 

          to lay. Maybe she wasn’t feeling it. Maybe, tomorrow,
as that woman who minds the amphibian tanks crunches

          the season’s dry leaves underfoot, she’ll sicken
of her commute. Low pay and stubborn animals. She doesn’t see 

          enough of her children, worries what they haven’t learned
in school. It is for her that guyacán trees burst 

          into bloom. Their amarillo brillante punctures
months of drought like the silk-strung suns

          of orb-weaver webs. Wealthy men, artists, harvested
the labor of Madagascans, made them milk

          gold from such spiders, spin threads and weave a mantle
they draped over the shoulders of a woman

          pale as baby’s breath. My grandmother’s saris were shot 
with gold threads, my mother’s silver, plated, mine

          plastic treated to shine, so scarce are the veins
under earth. I think of the coats some toads wear, signaling 

          fitness, the coming of storms, sex, biohazard 
toxins, prospectors’ fortunes. They’re extinct

          in the wild, those ranas doradas. After the harvest, 
we shall need new myths. A woman returns to her children 

          in the dark, kisses the brown of their foreheads, whispers 
that they must study hard, become economists. 

          But stop, she adds, to praise the brief sunbursts 
of guayacanes before their flowers fall, lest the rains 

          do not follow, lest your hearts compress 
to mere nuggets beneath your lungs.

This poem takes its epi­graph from Zip­pel, K. C. et al. Impli­ca­ciones en la con­ser­vación de las ranas doradas de Panamá, aso­ci­adas con su revisión tax­onómi­ca. Her­petotrop­i­cos 3:1 (2006), 29–39.



From the writer

:: Account ::

We are liv­ing through a bot­tle­neck period—the Anthro­pocene era of mass extinc­tion; the ever-widen­ing gap between wealth and pover­ty; the brink of nuclear war­fare between mega­lo­ma­ni­acs; the insti­tu­tion­al exploita­tion of peo­ple most mar­gin­al­ized by pow­er struc­tures; and the col­lapse of crit­i­cal ecosys­tems under the impacts of cli­mate change, pop­u­la­tion growth, and unchecked resource extrac­tion. Those of us who will make through the oth­er end of this bleak and nar­row­ing tun­nel will be poor­er for all that we have left behind in the wreck­age. We will only have sto­ries of those who died, images and videos of megafau­na and micro­bio­ta that have gone extinct. We will speak less than a cou­ple hun­dred lan­guages. We will have for­got­ten the names of every­one who didn’t have the wealth to erect mon­u­ments in their mem­o­ry. I am haunt­ed by this inevitabil­i­ty. When I write, about peo­ple or about oth­er organ­isms, it is to com­mit some­thing of what is won­der­ful about this world into the abstract realm of mem­o­ry. It’s all I can car­ry with me, cita­tions included.

Scarce Resources” con­cerns itself with extinc­tion on the one hand and eco­nom­ics on the oth­er. I live in Pana­ma, where the gold­en frog, Atelo­pus zete­ki, is an icon for native bio­di­ver­si­ty and con­ser­va­tion. I wrote the first draft of this poem in mid-April, just before the first rains of the sea­son, when Tabebuia guay­a­can trees bloom en masse. Words can­not express their yel­low in full sunlight—their mag­nif­i­cence stops cars short along the road-side so peo­ple can get out to take pho­tos of them. Yel­low-gold is the heart of this poem, giv­en form in ani­mal, min­er­al, and plant form. A Pana­man­ian told me a ver­sion of the sto­ry that appears in the poem’s epi­graph, and since my Span­ish is not as good as it should be, I mis­un­der­stood its mean­ing. I thought the mod­ern myth of the Pana­man­ian gold­en frog (sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly speak­ing, a toad) went like this: that if a man were lucky enough to find and cap­ture one in the wild, upon death, he would turn to gold. In fact, in the sto­ry I was told, it was the frog that would turn to gold. In real­i­ty, A. zete­ki is extinct in the wild, which makes me won­der, if we dug up the earth, would we find their lit­tle bod­ies trans­mo­gri­fied into gold nuggets? And if we found noth­ing, what sto­ries would we tell then? What would we do with­out yel­low so yel­low it glowed?


Geetha Iyer received an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing & Envi­ron­ment from Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty in 2014. Her writ­ing appears or is forth­com­ing in jour­nals includ­ing Ori­on, Gulf Coast, the Mid-Amer­i­can Review, and the Mass­a­chu­setts Review, among oth­ers. Recog­ni­tion for her work includes the O. Hen­ry Award, the James Wright Poet­ry Award, the Calvi­no Prize, and the Gulf Coast Fic­tion Prize. She was a 2016 writer-in-res­i­dence at the Sit­ka Cen­ter for Art and Ecol­o­gy in Ore­gon and a 2017 writer-in-res­i­dence at Estu­dio Nuboso’s Lab de Arte y Cien­cia in Pana­ma. She was born in India, grew up in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, and present­ly lives in Panama.